Looking Outward: Declining Congregations Need to Start Asking a Different Set of Questions


I have often thought, and sometimes said, that when I’m writing regularly, everything seems worth writing about. But when I’m writing only when I get the “urge,” nothing seems worth writing about.

When I’ve reoriented my schedule around writing, I find it odd how often things present themselves to me as inspiration for a post or an article, almost like tiny little gifts from the muse. Something one of my kids says. An odd choice of words by a newscaster. An infuriating bit of logic by a politician. Some craziness on Facebook or Twitter. Virtually anything can get the gears spinning.

On the other hand, when I’m not remaining diligent about managing my writing life, it seems that events have to hit me square between the eyes before I notice them as as things upon which it is worth remarking. Of course, this kind of “stuck” is its own disincentive to writing; it’s an appeal to the distractions to “please come take my attention, since I can’t seem to get it to focus on what I’m supposed to be doing.” I’m convinced that what we call “writer’s block” is simply getting out of the habit of writing regularly, which means that the ideas dry up, which means that you can’t write (because you have no ideas), which means that ideas have almost no chance at penetrating the thickening shell of non-writing, which means … It’s its own kind of literary vortex, from which escape seems almost impossible.

Why is that? I think it has something to do with awareness. Have you ever watched Jeopardy, and the librarian from Altoona says, “I’ll take literary terms for $1,000, Alex?”

Then Alex says, “The answer is “synecdoche.”

And our librarian friend pipes in with “What is a figure of speech in which a part is made to represent the whole or vice versa?”

Ding! Ding! Ding!

And you say to yourself, “You know, I’ve never heard that term before in my life.”

But next morning, as you’re poring over the New York Times book review, you see synecdoche in two different articles.

And when you come home from work, you’re fifteen year-old is sprawled out on the couch with five books, two empty cans of Dr. Pepper, and a pile of shredded candy wrappers. You say, “What you doing?”

The mumbled reply comes back, “English.”

“What are you studying in English?”

The fifteen year-old looks up casually and says, “Synecdoche,” like what elsewould he be studying?

And your spouse says, “Yeah, I hated synecdoche. I always got it confused with metonymy.”

The fifteen year-old nods sagely and says, “Oh man, I know what you mean. I hate that!”

And you look at your family like they’re pod people, alien replacements for the (mostly) normal folks whose stuff you’re always tripping over on the way to your Captain of the Universe Chair in the family room.

That ever happen to you?

I know. It’s kind of freaky. Not just the pod people thing—the sudden multiple appearances in your life of a word you’d never heard of before.

The thing is, “synecdoche” didn’t just spring up from nowhere to wreak havoc on your self-confidence; it’s always been there. You just didn’t notice it. Your attention gets refocused, and all of a sudden you start seeing things you never saw before, hearing things you are certain have never crossed your path before.

That sort of awareness adjustment happens to churches too.

Continue reading at [D]mergent . . .

7 Things to Remember after Reading the Latest Crappy Membership Numbers in the Yearbook

mainliners cover final (front)Holy Crap! It’s All Falling Apart!

I received my copy of the Disciples’ 2014 Yearbook and Directory yesterday morning. After lunch I picked it up, as I always do upon first receiving it, to look at Douglass Blvd. Christian Church’s entry—just to make sure, you know, that they got everything right. It’s not like the folks who put the Yearbook together have ever gotten itwrong (at least with regard to the congregation’s I’ve been involved in). But it’s a habit. So I looked.

Sure enough, our information had landed in this big fat book just the way we’d sent it. But after taking a look at DBCC’s entry, I glanced around at the other churches in Louisville. Then, I looked for my friends’ congregations. I looked for congregations I used to serve. Habit.

Then I started noticing something that hadn’t really ever caught my attention. I realized that I was looking at, what at least struck me as an inordinately high number of ellipses where numbers are supposed to be.Total Membership: … ; Participating Membership: … ; Average Worship Attendance: … ; Local Operating Receipts: … —well, you get the picture. Nothing. No report.

So, I started going through region by region, just glancing. Same thing; which is to say, an awful lot of nothing. And I felt the dark edges of panic curling at the edges of my consciousness.

Then I started focusing on Local Operating Receipts (i.e., the amount of money a congregation has received to pay for things like salaries, programming, maintenance, utilities, insurance—that sort of thing). And in the places where there were actual numbers, and not just dots, I realized how many congregations are getting by on relatively little money, given all those financial responsibilities I just named.

Then the panic really started to crowd my mind. What about all those young ministers—seminarians and recent graduates? Where are they going to go?

What about my friends who are looking to move to another church, most of them because they have to for one reason or another? Where are they going to go?

And then I thought, “What if DBCC gets really ticked at me, or just gets tired of my sarcasm and flippancy, figures they’ve heard enough of my dog and pony show? Where would I go?”

A sudden cloudburst outside my office window put an exclamation point on—what had already become—a grim afternoon.

Continue reading at [D]mergent . . .

The Lizard Brain: Why Fear Makes Bad Religion and Bad Politics


I’ve been on vacation with my family at the beach this past week. Great time. We always love the ocean.

Walking back to the car from the beach last evening, the wooden plank walkway took us through about 300 yards of marsh. Lots of lizards, snakes, and bugs. In particular, there were tons of dragonflies … and mosquitos—which, if you know much about entomology, makes sense, since dragonflies (or “skeeter hawks” as they’re sometimes called down South) love mosquitos. Dragonflies feast on mosquitos. Some species of dragonfly can eat hundreds of mosquitos a day.

So, dragonflies are a good thing, right? I know in my mind they are. I can readWikipedia just like anyone else. I’m a rational human being with a Ph.D and a library card. But dragonflies make me cringe. I have this thing when dragonflies are around, a thing that apparently comes from someplace deeper than my prefrontal cortex.

Know why?

When I was six years-old, Danny Gray told me that if you get bit by a dragonfly, you can become paralyzed.

Yep. That’s it. I don’t think with wonder about the prospect of wholesale mosquito assassination when I see a dragonfly. In fact, I don’t think at all, I react. My body, without any input from the cognitive portion of my brain, responds to the signals sent from my Amygdala (the so-called “lizard brain,” or, as I’ve termed it, the “chihuahua brain”). When I see a dragonfly, I don’t see—as most rational people who don’t carry my emotional baggage—a mosquito hit man; I see a paralysis delivery system.


Continue reading at [D]mergent . . .

4 Ways Fundamentalism Gets Progressive Christianity Shockingly Wrong


I sometimes get labeled “anti-fundamentalist,” which I find unfortunate. Some of my best friends are fundamentalist.1 I know some people who are amazingly good people who are fundamentalists, people who put the “fun” in “fundamentalist.” So, I reject the assertion that I’m somehow against fundamentalists.

Instead, I prefer to think of myself as anti-Fundamentalism, particularly Christian Fundamentalism.

There, I said it. I think Christian Fundamentalism fails in so many ways to understand the gospel of Jesus Christ. The “war on religion” is a war being waged by Christian Fundamentalism.

I want to be quick to point out that I don’t think I’ve got the whole Jesus-thing locked up myself. I’m open to the critique that I get things wrong about Christianity … perhaps even regularly wrong. However, I want to suggest that Christian Fundamentalism gets the gospel fundamentally wrong.

What do I mean?

Here is a list of popular charges leveled against Progressive Christianity, charges that, in many people’s minds, have ceased to be controversial. Christian Fundamentalism has successfully dominated the conversation about the nature and purpose of Christianity to the extent that these charges are viewed (by the culture, as well by other fundamentalists) as largely self-evidently true; they’ve graduated to tropes.

Continue reading at [D]mergent . . .

Are Mainline Denominations Dying?

mainliners cover final (front)Get together with a group of mainline ministers and sooner or later somebody is going to say, “I’m not even sure our denomination is going to be here in ten years.” I’m not sure why the event horizon is always a round number, nor am I sure what ecclesiastical tea leaves help generate this number, but it seems to be a mathematical constant.

“Ten years? Are you sure about the number?”

“Well, you know what I mean. Sooner rather than later.”

Mainline denominations typically occupy the center of discussion about decline—particularly decline in church membership. For years it was argued that the trends indicated that liberal theology was to blame, driving members away. But lately, even more theologically conservative churches have experienced a decline in membership. The Southern Baptist Convention, a widely conservative denomination characterized by consistent growth during the period of the mainline membership slump, has just posted a third year of declining membership numbers. The latest figures for 2010 indicate that church membership across the board in the SBC has fallen off by 1.05%.

My own denomination, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), has flailed about in uncertain waters for years. Since 1968, when the Christian Church restructured, officially becoming a denomination, it has lost 901,449 members (57%) and over 2,108 congregations (36%). By comparison, between 1965 and 2005, the United Church of Christ lost (41%) of its members, while the Presbyterian Church (USA) lost 46%. And though since 2006 the decline among Disciples has slowed considerably, losing only 1% of its members and .5% of its congregations, the continued downward trend has many Disciples worried about the long-term viability of the denomination.

Let’s be honest, the statistical trend is frightening. Last year alone, membership figures for mainline denominations were down across the board: United Methodist Church (-1.01%), Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (-1.96%), Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) (-2.61%), Episcopal Church (-2.48%), American Baptist Church (-1.55%), United Church of Christ (-2.83%).2 Sadly, when I go to Google and type in “mainline denomination,” the first suggestion Google provides is “mainline denomination decline.”

But I don’t even think looking at the numbers is the right way to think about it. If all we’ve got is ten years, then let’s use the time to do things that are so radical, so amazingly unthinkable that after ten years we’ll all be either so energized that we want to sign up for another tour, or so exhausted that we’ll all keel over and won’t have to worry about it anymore.

Continue reading at [D]mergent . . .

Getting Things Done: Plodding through the Valley of Abstraction

Golden Piano Keys

“What’s the one thing you’d like to do before you die?”

That’s what I asked them. Five of us sitting around a table in a bar after a wedding. You know how those conversations usually go. Besides my wife, I hadn’t met any of the other people until the day before. But having learned that one woman was a marathoner who expressed no interest in running another one since she’d already accomplished her goal, it got me to thinking. I wondered if she had other big-ticket items on her life to-do list. So I asked everybody what big thing they’d like to accomplish before shuffling off this mortal coil.

One person said, “Play the piano.”

Another said, “Do a hand stand in yoga.”

Still another said, “Be published.”

All of these seemed like reasonable aspirations—not outrageous, like becoming an astronaut or becoming a pediatric neurosurgeon (which aspirations aren’t outrageous either, unless you happen to be on the downward side of middle age). “Doable,” I thought.

So, we talked in a meta-way about accomplishing goals—about how hard you have to work, and how consistently you have to show up. Generalities. It was a bar conversation, after all.

But if it had been in another setting—one that didn’t include a long day, a night of dancing and drinking—I probably would have said, “Ok. So, how are you going to accomplish your goal?”

Look, I’m nobody’s life coach. But I know how this stuff works. Having a goal and accomplishing a goal are the same distance apart as fireflies and fire.

Usually, when I ask that question, “How are you going to accomplish your goal?” what I get is the econo-size box of hesitation. “Um … well … ”

So, the next step (there almost always has to be) is to ask, “What’s the first thing you’d have to do to achieve your goal?”

Continue reading at [D]mergent . . .

11 Questions for Christian Companies in Light of the Hobby Lobby Decision

By now you’ve probably heard about the Supreme Court decision in the Hobby Lobby case. The Christian owners of the Hobby Lobby chain of retail stores filed suit, seeking an exemption from paying for health insurance under the Affordable Care Act that covers contraceptive methods it deems in opposition to the Christian beliefs of the owners. The Supreme Court sided with Hobby Lobby, saying in the majority 5–4 opinion that it doubted “the Congress that enacted [Religious Freedom Restoration Act] — or, for that matter, ACA — would have believed it a tolerable result to put family-run businesses to the choice of violating their sincerely held religious beliefs or making all of their employees lose their existing healthcare plans.” Because family-run businesses.

Now there’s all kinds of debate about whether the SCOTUS decision infringes on a woman’s right to make medical choices in consultation with her doctor, absent the interference of her employer. There’s also debate about the extent to which this opens up a religious can of worms, allowing for arguments for exemption from a broad swath of laws based on personal religious conviction. All important stuff.

But what caught my attention was a piece on a conservative religious site, arguing that liberal opposition to the Supreme Court ruling was a baseless set of “ridiculous lies liberals are spreading about the Hobby Lobby victory.” In particular, I was struck by the writer’s claim that:

“The justices did not launch an attack on women. Women can still buy birth control, Plan B or whatever abortifacient they want with a doctor’s prescription. There’s just no reason a Christian company should be forced to pay for it.”

It’s kind of small, tucked in there at the end … the assertion of something called a “Christian company.” The author argues that Christian companies, like Hobby Lobby, should be allowed to express their religious convictions by avoiding paying for insurance that contradicts those convictions.

But, simpleminded as I am, I just kept tripping over those two words: Christian company. That sounds an awful lot like Citizens United on ecclesiastical steroids.

Continue reading at [D]mergent . . .

The Problem With Assuming That It’s the Millennials’ Fault for Abandoning Religion

[Note:This article originally appeared in the Huffington Post.]

I used to work with a guy who had a gift for breaking up with girls. He was so genuine and kind that afterward the girls would invariably leave feeling affirmed and cared for, like George Clooney had just fallen apart on them, relating how unworthy he was of their affections. Masterful. He was the ultimate “it’s-not-you-it’s-me” guy.

If you’re going to get dumped, that’s the kind of person you want lowering the boom, isn’t it?

But most people can’t pull off that level of empathy. Most people struggle between the poles of blame, between “your fault” and “my fault” — all too aware of the other person’s problems, but also painfully suspicious (if not quite aware) of their own complicity. It’s normal.

Then there are the people at the other end of the spectrum, unencumbered by the decided disadvantage of ever entertaining the possibility that they’re wrong. This is the “it’s-not-me-it’s you” person. These are the folks who believe that no problem is too big or too complicated that — with the application of a little intellectual candlepower — it can’t be successfully blamed on somebody else.

Now this shedding of responsibility can come in two different forms. The first type is what I call “the slippery blame-caster” — able to weasel out taking responsibility for anything that goes wrong by deflecting it onto someone else. This is the person who always seems to be standing behind you when the boss is around, pointing a finger at you when she thinks you’re not looking.

Continue reading at [D]mergent . . .

Marriage Equality and the Church as Bandwagon Fans

Sid Bream

I remember my best friend at Emmanuel School of Religion, Scott, used to get the Atlanta Journal-Constitution sent to him every week by his dad. As a displaced Georgia Bulldog and Atlanta Braves fan, Scott had no other real way of keeping up with his teams—the internet not yet being a thing and all. Being a displaced Cubs fan, I kind of understood—at least the impulse to want information on your team from trusted sources.

I say that “I kind of understood,” because, you know, displaced fan thing—but the whole “Atlanta Braves” thing entirely escaped me. Please understand, this is the pre-Maddux-and-Glavine Atlanta Braves, the Dale-Murphy-in-decline Atlanta Braves, the 106-loss Atlanta Braves. (I’m a Cubs fan, so I do have a pretty finely tuned sense of what a baseball wasteland feels like—but I guess it’s easier to understand when it’s your own wasteland.)

I couldn’t figure out why anyone would want to keep up with days old box scores from the Atlanta Braves. But Scott did. Faithfully. Every unimaginably excruciating day. I had a grim admiration for his tenacity.

It used to take a certain amount of courage to be an Atlanta Braves fan, to go to a virtually empty Fulton County Stadium in the torrid Atlanta summer, and watch your boys get hammered by the Montreal Expos—a kind of brave fatalism, if you’ll pardon the pun. However misguided, it struck me as a nobly rash commitment to something that everyone agreed was a bad idea loaded up on a train to nowhere.

Until it wasn’t.

Continue reading at [D]mergent . . .

Five Fears That Make Change Difficult and the Ways to Address Them

Packing Boxes

She placed one more faded greeting card into the brown box she’d bought in a package of boxes from the U-haul place. Afterward, she taped the box and left it sitting for the custodian to collect. It needed to go upstairs to the attic with the other faded greeting cards, old swatches of fabric, and stray skeins of yarn.

As long as she could remember—which, being eighty-five, turned out to be a long time—there’d been a women’s circle. For generations it had existed as the heartbeat of mission and outreach in her congregation, the most active group by far—organizing, fundraising, cooking, sewing, comforting, loving, ministering. But not long ago she’d said goodbye to her last “partner in crime” at a nice, if sparsely attended, funeral bathed in blue and pink lights and smelling of lilies. And now, bitter as it tasted, she was admitting defeat.

Scrawled in Sharpie on the top of the box it said, “cards.” But one word could never do justice to all that she’d packed up for storage.

She’d insisted on doing it herself. After all, she knew not only what the boxes contained, but also what they represented. And she couldn’t quite bear the thought of turning over stewardship of that legacy quite yet.

So, as she mopped her brow, she thought of the old offertory sentence from the Book of Common Prayer, bidding us all “with gladness” to “present the offerings and oblations of our life and labor to the Lord.” Looking up from the Sharpie-marked carton, she decided it was with gladness that she offered up the offerings and oblations of the life and labor of dozens of strong women to the Lord.

But she also had to admit that, beyond the odd ambivalence of claiming this heritage with one arthritic hand and passing it on with the other, there was something else. Deep down beneath the cobwebs and the doilies, beneath the gratitude and the disappointment lived something perhaps even more elemental.


Continue reading at [D]mergent . . .